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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

Class Conscious
By Tom Nugent
Photography by Jim Coit

Many young UCSD alumni have joined Teach For America’s educational outreach program. They work in tough inner-city schools from New York’s Harlem, to L.A.’s South Central to East Las Vegas. Their main reward is a deep sense of satisfaction. These are just a few of their stories.


It is ten-fifteen on a September morning at Public School 25 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, N.Y., and Kate Maull, ’05, is teaching four Hispanic children how to write better English.

Also known as the “Eubie Blake Elementary School,” PS 25 serves more than 700 kids from one of America’s most economically challenged neighborhoods—a low-income and periodically crime-wracked section of Brooklyn that owns a longstanding reputation as one of the most blighted urban landscapes in the country. Pockmarked with abandoned buildings and junked cars, the 3.5-square-mile mostly Black neighborhood became a national symbol of urban decay starting way back in the 1960s. And although living conditions in “Bed-Stuy” have improved significantly in recent years, more than 72 percent of its children are born into poverty each year.

Kate Maull, ’05, a former communications major at UCSD, believes deeply in the mission of the rapidly growing Teach For America (TFA) educational outreach program. Modeled on the U.S. Peace Corps, TFA now reaches more than 375,000 economically challenged public school kids each day. Maull, a soft-spoken San Francisco Bay area native, joined as one of its ESL (English as a Second Language) instructors shortly before her graduation. She sees her goal as a second-year teacher in the program to help provide “equal access to quality education for all of our school children, regardless of where they live or their economic status.”

She always begins her day with a smile and some positive reinforcement.

“Okay, let’s begin with our thumbs up and thumbs down!” she says, as her 45-minute ESL class with four 9-year-olds gets underway. “Jacky, do you have a ‘thumbs up’ you can share with us?”

Seated across the table from her teacher, fourth grader Jacky, whose parents came to this country a few years ago from Mexico and El Salvador, lights up with excitement. “My ‘thumbs up’ is that I read a lot of books over the summer,” she blurts out. “And I learned a lot.”

“That sounds like fun,” says Maull.

One by one, the other three kids at the table present the class with their “thumbs up and thumbs down” experiences—as part of a game invented by “Miss Maull” that allows them to begin each class with a conversational icebreaker.

“My cousin keeps hitting me,” says Edwin, whose family came to Bed-Stuy from the Dominican Republic only recently.

“Hitting me hard!”

“So what do you do about it?”

“Tell my mom.”

“That’s probably a good idea, isn’t it?”

Edwin nods, seemingly satisfied.

“Alicia, sit up, please,” Maull says, firmly but warmly.

“Hands to yourself, please. ”

“For my ‘thumbs up,’ I passed on to third grade,” says Ruben, also a Spanish-speaker from the Dominican Republic.

“That’s good, Ruben, that’s very good.”

And so it went, for the next 40 minutes or so, as Kate Maull led her youthful charges through a writing-reading exercise in which they drew their own faces, named the languages they speak at home and then wrote out a few words to describe themselves. From start to finish, she sat at the table beside her students, directly beneath a colorful banner that proclaimed her very down-to-earth teaching philosophy: NO EXCUSES!

Speaking softly but firmly, and repeatedly using polite terms of respect (such as “Please,” “Thank you,” and “If you don’t mind”), Maull performed a skillful balancing act that combined creative discussion with gentle reprimands for inappropriate behavior (“Alicia, hands to yourself, please—last warning!”)

Maull is passionate about her new life as a member of the Teach For America corps. “Our stated objective is to close the gap between low-income and high-income students,” she says. “We believe that there will be a day when all children in this nation have the ability to obtain an excellent education.”

Maull lives in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from her school in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “Life can be rough at times in Bed-Stuy, and it can be dangerous,” she explains. “But it’s also a very vibrant community, with incredibly cultured and friendly people. The kids in this community grow up with the good and the bad, and the best we can do is to help them with whatever comes in their path.”

Growing up in the San Francisco suburbs, her parents struggled hard to pay the bills but also made a great effort to teach her the value of social responsibility. She believes that is one of the reasons she was drawn to the Peace Corps-like Teach For America program.

While studying the politics of race and gender at UCSD, she was especially inspired as an undergraduate, she says, by the exemplary teaching of Thurgood Marshall College Dean of Student Affairs Ashanti Houston Hands, ’93: “She’s an outstanding professional woman, but also a mother with a wonderful family. “I learned a great deal from her,” she says, before heading off to teach her next class at PS 25. “She was strong, she was thoughtful, she was open to new ideas.”

Then she smiles and quotes Dean Hands quoting Gandhi, which she says happened quite often during her years as an undergrad in San Diego.

"Be the change you wish to see in the world!”

Kathy Ha: “I Read The Dalai Lama A Lot!”

Kathy Ha, ’05, teaches English as a Second Language to mostly Hispanic grade school children at Public School No. 278, located in one of Harlem’s grittiest neighborhoods.

A former urban studies major at UCSD, the 23-year-old Ha, now in the second year in the TFA program, revels in the challenge of teaching low-income kids from Latin America. But it isn’t easy. By the end of the school day, she often feels exhausted. And she says there are moments when she wonders if she’ll be able to make it all the way to four o’clock.

“Until I started teaching, I never knew I could yell so loud,” says the San Francisco-area native, who wrote her UCSD senior thesis on the art of teaching English to immigrant children in the U.S. public school system, and then wound up actually doing it. “Every once in a while, I’ll end up hollering at the top of my lungs. I’d never imagined that those kinds of sounds could come out of my body!”

Ha sometimes finds herself solving the kinds of social problems that are an inevitable part of life in a low-income neighborhood. If a child is hungry, she enrolls him in the school’s free breakfast program. If a second-grader lacks clothes, she signs her up for a free public-school clothing program.

In the worst cases—neglect, psychological abuse, physical violence at home—she sends the child to the school counselor for possible intervention by social services authorities in New York City.

Regardless of the stress and turmoil involved in trying to help solve thorny social problems, Ha says she’s heartened by the knowledge that her students are making steady, measurable progress in her classroom. “Sometimes, they tell me about their lives . . . how eight or nine people are forced to live in a one-bedroom apartment. That isn’t something I can fix, not right away. But what I can do is make sure that that child gets a chance to obtain an excellent education. I can help remove the barriers. I can do food and clothes and transportation to school—and if the kid doesn’t have a place to study at night because there are problems at home, I can stay after school with that child until all of his or her homework is done correctly.”

A first-generation Korean-American, Ha says she became interested in joining the teaching corps after taking some eye-opening courses in urban studies at UCSD. “All at once, I began learning about how 40 million Americans have no health insurance,” she recalls. “I took courses that explored the housing problems and the medical problems faced by low-income families.



Teach For America

“She sees her goal as a second-year teacher in the program to help provide "equal access to quality education for all of our school children, regardless of where they live or their economic status."”